In the early morning hours of Monday, April 30th, 1900, railroad engineer John Luther “Casey” Jones agreed to substitute for an ill co-worker, helming a passenger train from Memphis, TN to Canton, MS on the back end of a double shift. Jones— known among his professional peers as an exceptionally prompt engineer—departed Memphis at 1:00 a.m. 95 minutes behind schedule. By 4:00 a.m., Jones and his African-American co-pilot Sim Webb had nearly made up all the time and were cruising towards Canton for an “on the advertised” arrival.
In Vaughn, MS, only 18 miles away from the end of the line at Canton, a series of complications and miscommunications put another train on the main railroad line, directly in Casey’s path. A curve in the tracks and some unusually foggy weather obscured the view of this train; Casey and Sim did not see it until it was too late. Casey instructed Sim to jump from the train—which he did without injury—and then managed to slow the train down from 75 to 35 mph at the time of impact, saving the lives of all passengers on board. Casey himself would not survive the crash and was, miraculously, the only casualty in the accident. According to some, Casey’s body was uncovered from the wreckage still clutching the brake lever.
This story has captured the imagination of America ever since. Casey Jones’ heroism was the subject of several books and articles, and his image was even on a U.S. Postage stamp. The story was first immortalized in music with the “Ballad of Casey Jones”, written by Wallace Saunders, a railroad worker friend of Casey’s. The Grateful Dead also perpetuated the legend with their version of “Casey Jones”, released in 1970. (Contrary to Jerry Garcia’s lyrics, Casey Jones himself was a teetotaler, and was not, in fact, high on cocaine).
In 1950, Walt Disney released their version of the Casey Jones story with an animated short called “The Brave Engineer”. As is typical of Disney animation, several realities were distorted or abandoned in the cartoon in the name of “entertainment”. In the cartoon, Casey Jones is engineering a mail train, not a passenger train. Casey’s co-pilot was not drawn as an African-American, but a portly, doddering old caucasian. Along the route, Casey encounters a cow, a flood of biblical proportions, a damsel-in-distress, a mustachioed villain, and several armed bandits, all of whom he easily dispatches. Despite his cartoonish bravery, Casey himself is something of a dolt in the animation, shown often as sleepy and unaware. Most offensively, Casey survives the crash in the cartoon, pulling his wrecked engine into the mail depot for a late mail delivery, shrugging and grinning sheepishly about his tardiness.
“Engineered” attempts to re-interpret Disney’s somewhat indignant portrayal of the story of Casey Jones through a repurposing of the audio track of the original cartoon. The original Disney audio is most definitely not used with permission.